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Ineffectiveness of the US-Led War on Drugs

Updated on December 31, 2014

Overview: War on Drugs

The United States has deemed the global drug problem a key national security interest and has been a major enforcer in the US-led War on Drugs in an attempt to eradicate narcotic drugs from the source. The War on Drugs was implemented by President Richard Nixon to thwart the rising level of narcotic use throughout the United States and across the globe (Marcy, 2010). For over forty years, the United States has dictated and enforced drug control policies throughout South America, Southeast and Southwest Asia, Central America, and Mexico, while narcotics production and distribution continued to flourish (Marcy, 2010). This research will closely examine the US War on Drugs, its drug control policies throughout successive presidencies and its overall effectiveness in eradicating or inhibiting the spread of narcotics across the globe. Each presidency following the Nixon administration faced scrutiny for its policies and international involvement in counter narcotic programs due to the unintended consequences and political and economic instability it produced. The War on Drugs has remained a controversial and uphill battle for providing a balance between rural development, crop substitution, and defeating the drug cartels and narco-traffickers in the prominent narcotic producing countries. Once President Reagan took office, the US War on Drugs strategy transformed the direction of national security policy and intensified military commitment directed at the source of the drug problem in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, spurring economic distress, coca nationalism, drug violence, and increasing human rights violations (Marcy, 2010).



Nixon Administration

President Richard Nixon initiated the US War on Drugs in response to the systemic use of illicit drugs throughout the civilian population and among soldiers returning home from the Vietnam War. Nixon determined America’s drug problem as a key national security interest and sought to destroy the supply and demand of narcotic drugs within the United States (Marcy, 2010). Thus, the Nixon administration developed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act in 1969, which combined a series of legislation of drug control policies within the United States. This legislation was oriented toward thwarting the domestic supply and demand issues by enforcing rehabilitation services, enhancing law enforcement policies, and increased information sharing between the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs and the Customs Bureau (Marcy, 2010). However, the Nixon administration quickly realized defeating the supply of drugs coming into the U.S. requires confronting the narcotic source abroad (Marcy, 2010). US intelligence reports confirmed that US narcotic users were being supplied by Turkey, France, Mexico, Colombia, Panama, Peru, and Bolivia. By 1973, the Nixon Administration created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), an international law enforcement agency, developed to eradicate illicit drugs on a global level using military aide and numerous source control methods (Chouvy, 2010). The US provided financial assistance, enforced narcotic eradication efforts, and assisted with counter narcotics programs throughout Turkey, Burma, Thailand, Colombia, Afghanistan, Bolivia, and Peru (Chouvy, 2010). As narcotics production continued to rise, the United States applied pressure on the northern Andean governments or the source countries to enforce harsher sanctions, counter narcotic initiatives, extradition, as well as assisting with crop substitution and rural development programs (Marcy, 2010).

During the Nixon, Ford, and Carter presidencies, counter narcotic programs focused on crop substitution and rural development in response to the failed eradication efforts of aerial spraying and manual extraction, which caused displaced campesinos to slide further into poverty (Marcy, 2010). The US launched an experimental crop substitution program in Bolivia and Peru in an attempt to reduce the growing output of narcotics. Crop substitution quickly became a daunting challenge due to the limited amount of crops that could grow and the restricted transportation in the remote regions of the Andes (Marcy, 2010) USAID determined that legitimate crops could not compete with coca revenues. To address this issue, Department of State and the DEA determined that rural development and improved quality of life for the coca farmers needed to be implemented before crop substitution. Therefore, the U.S. executed a step-by-step prohibition on coca production, attempting to emplace development programs while limiting coca production within Peru and Bolivia (Marcy, 2010). The US continued to apply pressure on the northern Andean governments to embrace crop substitution and development programs, however, the culture, environment, poor infrastructure, and poverty of the campesinos coupled with sizeable coca revenues contributed to the growth of coca and inhibited the success of alternative crops within the Andes (Marcy, 2010). Despite proactive US involvement, narcotic production continued to rise throughout the 1970’s. As the US War on Drugs continued to ineffectively reduce the growth of narcotics, the US government significantly expanded the DEA’s involvement and budget in foreign affairs (Chouvy, 2010).

Reagan Administration

The lack of progress by the end of the Nixon Administration led to the abrasive, controversial War on Drugs streamlined by President Ronald Reagan and George Bush. President Reagan introduced a militarized approach to catapult success in the War on Drugs in reaction to increasing drug abuse throughout the United States (Marcy, 2010). Reagan’s War on Drugs strategy intensified drug control policies of eradication, drug interdiction, and enhanced military and law enforcement involvement in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia (Marcy, 2010). The Reagan administration passed the Defense Authorization Act, authorizing the US Coast Guard and Navy to assist in the interdiction of narcotics, as well as established the South Florida Task Force to inhibit narcotic trafficking from South America (Marcy, 2010). In Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, the Reagan administration allocated millions of dollars to support the Andean paramilitary armies and the police force (Marcy, 2010). US intervention led to the creation of the Special Anti-Narcotics Units within the Colombian police force and led to an increase in drug seizures from 1981 to 1983 (Marcy, 2010). Despite the SANU’S tactical victory, narcotics production and distribution continued to grow. Due to ongoing US pressure, Colombia eventually decided to use herbicides to eradicate marijuana growth. The eradication significantly decreased the amount of marijuana production to the United States, but gave Mexico the opportunity to become the leading marijuana supplier for the US. US policy caused political instability in Colombia due to the manual extraction of coca, guerrilla opposition, and talk of extradition (Marcy, 2010).

Similar to Colombia, the United States attempted to enable the Peruvian military and law enforcement by establishing an interdiction program designed to control the growth of coca within the region. The US allocated seventy million dollars to finance a rural development program with hopes of establishing alternative crops throughout Colombia while simultaneously enforcing eradication initiatives (Marcy, 2010). Due to lack of results, the US continued to pressure the Peruvian government to manually extract the coca plant, causing resistance and unrest among the coca farmers. As the coca farmers continued to revolt, organized drug rings began to materialize, causing further instability throughout the region (Marcy, 2010).

Comparable to Colombia and Peru, the US provided Bolivia with financial assistance to support its crop substitution, rural development, and eradication programs. However, alternative crops did not bring in substantial revenue comparable to the coca plant. Unfortunately, the ongoing US eradication and crop substitution policies caused the Bolivian population to revolt (Marcy, 2010). The US was disappointed with Bolivia’s counter narcotic results and launched operation Blast Furnace to target the Bolivian cocaine laboratories and institutions. US occupation of Bolivia fueled civilian unrest throughout the nation, causing the Bolivian people, farmers and politicians to protest the Bolivian government (Marcy, 2010).

By 1986, President Reagan deemed illegal narcotics a threat to the United States and ramped up policies on domestic and foreign drug control (Marcy, 2010). The president passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986, expanding the Department of Defense and its ability to strengthen the War on Drugs. This act improved law enforcement, rehabilitation treatment, drug interdiction, and reinforced global cooperation in counter narcotics programs (Marcy, 2010). The Reagan Administration distributed millions of dollars among the Coast Guard, US Army and Customs Service to enhance education, rehabilitation and provide funding for air and ground interdiction equipment (Marcy, 2010). The most controversial aspect of the War on Drugs was the extensive involvement of military forces. The Reagan Administration allowed US armed forces to assist throughout Latin America to counter narcotic trafficking. Sustained drug control efforts were designed to defeat narco- traffickers from producing and spreading illicit drugs into the United States and across the globe. The militarization of the War on Drugs was deemed necessary due to the perceived connection between narco traffickers, guerillas and terrorists, who were heavily involved in the drug trade and undermining the overall goal of the War on Drugs (Marcy, 2010). As the War on Drugs progressed, US counter narcotics programs failed to reduce or eliminate the supply and demand of narcotic drugs in Central America, Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, facilitating deeper military involvement in successive presidencies (Marcy, 2010).

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Crop Substitution


Bush Administration

The Bush administration took a more intensive militarized strategy to the War on Drugs and was known for creating the “Andean Strategy,” which deepened US military involvement and its commitment to remedy the drug epidemic in the Andes (Marcy, 2010, p. 133). President Bush led his presidency with US occupation in Panama to overthrow the Noriega regime due to his ties with the Medellin Cartel and M-19 (Marcy, 2010). Intensive militarization started with the 1988 Anti Drug Abuse Act, creating the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the extensive involvement of US armed forces in US drug control policies abroad. The Bush administration determined that the narco-traffickers and insurgents were producing international turmoil and hindering US efforts to defeat the drug industry. To address this alliance, the Bush administration streamlined the Posse Comitatus Act, allowing US armed forces to apprehend foreign drug traffickers, serve in a law enforcement capacity, and assist Andean armed forces with guerrilla opposition (Marcy, 2010). This legislation established a prolonged US military presence within the Andean region and gave the US permission to invade Panama. The Bush administration expanded the DOD and US military involvement under NSDD 18 and launched the Andean Strategy, created to target coca cultivation, disrupting supply shipments, destroying cocaine laboratories and drug cartels within the region (Marcy, 2010). The Bush administration focused on enhancing security within the Andean region by supporting and funding the Andean armed forces and law enforcement (Marcy, 2010). The successive militarized approach from the 1970’s to the 1990’s catapulted the militarization of the War on Drugs, bringing Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia into the spotlight. The continuous pressure on the northern Andean governments, as well as Latin America as a whole, to enlist military personnel in a law enforcement capacity has undermined its democratic institutions, human rights, and local security (Zirnite, 1998).


For over forty years, the US-led War on drugs has spent billions of dollars to defeat the global drug trade through coca eradication, herbicidal spraying, crop substitution, rural development programs, targeting narco-traffickers, guerillas, and drug cartels while the production of narcotics continued to rise. The War on Drugs initially began as a domestic program within the United States, but as narcotic supply continued to stream into the US, successive presidencies have dedicated counter narcotic efforts throughout the international arena, eventually targeting Latin America to include the prominent sources of supply within Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. The phased militarization of the War on drugs has created political and economic turmoil in Latin America and nations that were already on the verge of economic collapse and experiencing regional instability. Over the years, the American War on Drugs strategy has produced short-term victories in reducing the narcotic demand within the U.S. and diminishing coca production throughout Latin America (Francis, 2011). According to Francis (2011) the latest World Drug Report confirms that coca production has decreased by twenty eight percent over the last ten years and due to this decrease the US had a comparable reduction in cocaine use, simultaneously diminishing the market value for cocaine (p. 165). Although this portrays a tactical victory for the United States, the World Drug Report noted a substantial increase of cocaine consumption in Europe as well as in developing nations (Francis, 2011).

One of the major issues challenging the American drug war is the adaptability and fluidness of the narcotic industry and its criminal followers. The narcotic industry in Colombia is dominated by the Medellin and Cali cartels. To address this issue, the United States implemented the Andean Strategy to eliminate the cocaine supply and its distribution in Colombia (Francis, 2011). The Andean Strategy was conducted by pressuring the Colombian government to target key cartel members and their cocaine laboratories. Despite numerous apprehensions and drug seizures, the drug trade remained resilient. The increasing narcotic efforts in Colombia caused production to shift to Peru and Bolivia (Francis, 2011). As the US applies pressure on a certain region, the narco traffickers alter their production zones and distribution routes in an effort to circumvent capture, ultimately failing to defeat the drug trade for the long term. US strategy continues to be hindered by the “balloon effect,” concentrating efforts in one area causes the problem to surface in other regions (Zirnite, 1998). As US policy failed to control the spread of narcotics, the drug trade became a staple for the Andean economies. The economic pitfalls within the Andean region further exacerbated narcotic production and distribution as the narco traffickers moved with impunity (Marcy, 2010). The Andean governments as well as the campesinos grew reliant on narcotic production for economic survival; facilitating US resistance to drug control measures. US eradication efforts caused narco traffickers and guerillas to unify within the narcotics trade and protect the coca growing areas within the region, causing more dangerous narcotic rings to emerge (Marcy, 2010).

The US government continued to address the mounting drug problem by targeting narco traffickers and drug cartels with military might rather than focusing on the coca farmers and economic development in each nation (Marcy, 2010). The failure of crop substitution coupled with US military occupation, extradition and enduring US pressure to eradicate coca, the northern Andean nations were in a state of political upheaval and the population fought for coca nationalism (Marcy, 2010). In response to anti-US sentiment, the Andean armed forces augmented counter narcotic operations, which resulted in systemic corruption, human rights violations, and regional instability (Marcy, 2010). In the Andes and Mexico, the US is building partnerships with host nation armies who are known for corruption and committing human rights violations. US policies and militarization strategies within the Andes and Mexico is facilitating the convergence of narco-traffickers, terrorists and guerrilla organizations into a “marriage of convenience” in an effort to extend narcotic capabilities and global reach (HS Today, 2009). The militarization of these regions is taking away from local law enforcement and its ability to conduct thorough investigations and protect citizen’s rights, thereby, undermining its democratic institutions and way of life (Zirnite, 1998). The Clinton and George W. Bush administrations attempted to move away from the Andean Strategy, but by 1998 narcotic production throughout the Andes skyrocketed and by 2006 coca production throughout South America reached 970 metric tons, matching its previous boom in 2002 of 975 metric tons (Marcy, 2010). Thus, both administrations returned to the militarized approach and failed to establish an effective crop substitution program (Marcy, 2010). As the economies stalled and military involvement resumed, the campesinos and guerrilla forces unified their efforts to accelerate the drug trade.

Conclusive Remarks

Over the past forty years, the United States has implemented a supply side approach advocating military solutions to counter the global drug problem (Marcy, 2010). The phased militarization of the US War on drugs has created political and economic unrest throughout Latin America. Once Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru entered the spotlight, US policy applied pressure on the Andean governments to implement stricter counter narcotic policies. These policies came at a time of economic distress for the northern Andean governments, since coca cultivation was their main source of revenue among the campesino population. Once US policy pressured the Andean governments to target drug cartels and implement eradication programs, violence ensued and the campesinos slid further into poverty, ultimately alienating the Andean population and narco traffickers to fight back. As the northern Andean governments were met with campesino resistance and violent narco-traffickers, the Andean armed forces attempted to quell the violence, resulting in rising human rights violations, impeding democratic institutions, and regional instability. The Obama administration continues to support US military involvement and financial aide for eradication efforts throughout the Andean region and Mexico (Reiss, 2010). Research suggests that the War on Drugs has ineffectively decreased narcotic cultivation and trafficking as human abuse, violence, and expenses of the militarized drug war continue to climb (Reiss, 2010).

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Chouvy, Pierre-Arnaud. (2010) “Opium| Uncovering the Politics of the Poppy.” Cambridge, Massachusetts. Harvard Printing Press.

Francis, June N.P. (2011) Collateral Damage: the ‘War on Drugs’, and the Latin America and Caribbean Region: policy recommendations for the Obama Administration. Policy Studies 32(2), 159-177. doi: 10.1080/01442872.2010.544451.

HS Today. (2009, January) The Cartels as Narco-terrorists. Retrieved from Ebscohost.

Marcy, W. (2010). The politics of cocaine: How U.S. foreign policy has created a thriving drug industry in central and south America. Chicago, Il: Lawrence Hill Books.

Reiss, Suzanna. (2010) Beyond Supply and Demand: Obama’s Drug Wars in Latin America. NACLA Report on the Americas. Retrieved from Ebscohost.

Zirnite, Peter (1998) The Militarization of the Drug War in Latin America. Current History 97(618), 166. Retrieved from ProQuest.


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